United locked in cruise control

Everton brushed aside as Butt leads Ferguson's men on a stroll before their trip to Kiev
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The Independent Football

When the Manchester United supporters in the Bullens Road Stand began chanting "Champions", it was hard to know whether they were talking of the present or the future.

When the Manchester United supporters in the Bullens Road Stand began chanting "Champions", it was hard to know whether they were talking of the present or the future.

Facing an Everton side ruined by injury, they had won the game by half-time and had the passion and commitment to protect that lead remorselessly whenever it was threatened.

It is still officially summer but the field seems bare of challengers. Chelsea's internal politics have seen them spectacularly implode while Leeds, having lost to Manchester City and Ipswich, are in freefall. Realistically, there is just Arsenal left;if United keep up this form, the Scottish Premier League might look relatively open.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith, men who made their managerial names at Pittodrie and Ibrox, were of the same opinion; United were irresistible. Ferguson reckoned the first half, in which his team scored three times in a dozen minutes, was their finest spell of football this season. There have been quite a few contenders already.

Everton recovered a goal and a slice of their pride after the interval but Smith expressed his disappointment when he remarked: "We allowed them to play at will."

If Manchester United's game plan was to win with the minimum of effort before their trek to Kiev's Olympic Stadium then they achieved their aim, although Fabien Barthez pulled a back muscle that will rule him out for Tuesday's Champions' League fixture.

By way of compensation, Wes Brown, starting his first game since April 1999 after which he wrecked his cruciate ligaments in a training-ground accident, came through a passionate game admirably, while Ferguson said he had "given Jaap Stam the weekend off".

United's first two goals came from their first two shots on target from open play and culminated from moves that, for their opponents, contained their usual tedious combination of flair and persistence.

Their first came after 26 minutes from the right where Denis Irwin gave the casual observer no idea he was out ofposition as he beat his man to send in a cross that Nicky Butt met before defender and goalkeeper.

Teddy Sheringham, partnering Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the kind of seamless striker rotation system that Chelsea can only envy, should have had the second as he left David Weir lumbering in his wake and advanced on goal. Paul Gerrard made a fine one-handed save which succeeded only in turning the ball into Ryan Giggs' path. The finish was not straightforward; the Welshman was outside the area when the ball came to him, but the sweetness of his shot made it look an act of the utmost simplicity.

You could say much the same about United's third, which involved the usual suspects; begun by Giggs, laid on by Sheringham, via the boot of Beckham, into Solskjaer's path with inevitable results.

There might have been even more self-inflicted, damage done, as Weir, who had a wretched game, twice committed cardinal errors in his own area, first miskicking with Paul Scholes feet away and then allowing himself to be dispossessed by Solksjaer six yards out. But for a marvellous save from Gerrard, United would have been four up and the conversation between the Everton captain and manager would have been heard well outside the home dressing room.

Brown, who Ferguson purred "will make a real centre-half", and Gary Neville, pushed into the heart of defence to cope with Francis Jeffers as he does when United face Michael Owen, coped well enough, with Everton's main threat (the term is a relative one) from Niclas Alexandersson.

Generally, however, their attempts to crack United open with long through-balls were defeated by a fundamental lack of accuracy. But accuracy was not a problem for Steve Watson who nine minutes after the restart served notice Everton would not allow themselves to be humiliated. His ball was fully 30 yards across the pitch and found Thomas Gravesen who drove his shot under Barthez. Ferguson was, nevertheless, roused to anger by the fact that the move had begun with a foul by Richard Dunne on Solskjaer that should have brought "a stone-cold penalty".

Moments later, Watson was deflecting a shot from Solskjaer off his own goal-line and when Beckham and Alex Nyarko began grappling with each other it seemed a game driven forward at a frenetic pace might overheat.

There was no real chance United would lose control of their emotions or the match and might have extended their lead as Dwight Yorke, the one striker with something to prove at Old Trafford this season, clipped Beckham's ball on to the post. Nevertheless, the second half ensured Everton would at least lose with honour - just about the most you can hope for in games with United.

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